A tall glass of iced tea with slices of lemon floating among the ice cubes.
A delicate porcelain china cup of a hot Assam with a side of sugar cubes and lemon.
These images have been iconic in the western tea world for many generations. One might assume they are inventions of European and American tea drinkers, yet adding lemon to tea has been widespread through numerous tea cultures and dates back far further than one might think.
Modern iced tea with lemon is only about a century old with examples dating back to at least 1884. However hot tea with lemon has been a practice among western tea drinkers since European aristocrats started drinking it that way not long after tea was introduced to the continent. It was not their invention either. Rather they borrowed it from the Russians, who had been imbibing tea this way for some time. Often hot tea with lemon was referred to as Russian Tea for exactly this reason.
It’s not a surprise that Russians were drinking tea with lemon. It was common custom, and still is, for Russian tea drinkers to sweeten up their tea by adding fruit or jam to it in much the same way that other western drinkers might add sugar cubes. In times when sugar was not readily available or affordable the addition of fruit, either fresh or preserved, was a natural and relatively inexpensive way to create a special sweet treat. Fruit also had the benefit of adding to the nutritional value.
Yet Russians weren’t the inventors of adding lemon to hot tea either. Many centuries before the Russians began imbibing lemon tea the Chinese were already adding various citrus to their teas. It’s still common to find Chinese teas with chen pi (dried orange peel) added for the taste or as a traditional medicinal ingredient. There are teas roasted inside whole citrus to absorb the aroma and oils. These are most commonly pu-erh teas, but it’s easy to find black teas, white teas, and even oolongs stuffed into mandarins, lemons, limes, oranges, and even large pomelos. The smaller citrus are brewed whole, citrus and tea leaf together, but most are made by scooping out some tea leaf and breaking off a chunk of rind for a pot of tea.
The earliest writings about tea mention the use of citrus in hot tea. Lu Yu’s Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea), written during the T’ang dynasty in the 8th century CE, is famous for the author’s scorn of the practice. Lu Yu was a purist who insisted tea should be made with the best water and should include nothing other than the tea leaf, water, and perhaps a pinch of salt.
With regard to other ingredients he wrote the following: “Sometimes such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches; still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way.”
While Lu Yu may not have appreciated lemon in his tea, clearly people of the time were fond of adding citrus and the practice has only increased in popularity as the centuries have passed. It’s unclear if Lu Yu would have been gladdened to see drinking tea become a powerful worldwide phenomenon, or horrified that flavoring tea is such a ubiquitous practice.
Benefits of Adding Lemon to Tea
There is good reason why blends with lemon or other citrus added are so popular.
Adding a slice of lemon to your tea is an excellent way to make almost any tea more interesting. A slice of lemon can make a strong black tea taste more refined and noteworthy, or counter the sharp bite of a very delicate tea. It can balance out a rich tea that is too naturally sweet for one’s taste, such as a golden Yunnan tea or a rooibos, or act as a supportive bridge to other flavorings like bergamot, lavender, or mint.
There are also numerous health benefits to adding a lemon slice to too.
- Lemons are rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamin C.
- Compared to honey and sugar, lemons are a low-sugar, low-calorie alternative to sweetening your tea.
- Studies have shown flavonoids in lemon can help lower blood pressure